For several years before we retired, my husband and I spent our weekends in a cabin beside a 65-acre lake about six miles from the farm where we now live. Our closest neighbors were Pearl and Jim Berry, who, though poor in ready cash, were rich in grace and country wisdom. They lived with pride in a 120-year-old cabin with a single overhead light bulb in each small room, their only inside plumbing a cold-water tap piped into the kitchen. We learned to depend on them to enlighten us about the mysteries of country living.
What Pearl and Jim really taught us is that self-sufficiency is still important in parts of America’s backwaters; that “getting ahead” is not everyone’s primary goal; that it is possible to value family and friendship over making money, and to be content far from the fast track—especially if you don’t even know what “fast track” means.
It was Pearl who initiated me into the country ritual of spring tonics. “Tonic” is a loosely used term that can be applied to many other subjects, but here it refers to those green plants emerging early in the season that reputedly strengthen and invigorate the body. In the days before supermarkets and high-speed, refrigerated long-distance shipping, such plants provided welcome stimulation for digestive and circulatory systems that had become sluggish from a winter diet heavy in cabbage, rutabagas, potatoes, dried beans, and canned corn. Those foods filled hungry bellies and were easily stored but didn’t supply sufficient quantities of the vitamins and minerals essential for good health. Without supplemental nutrition from leafy green and orange vegetables, such a diet might well result in symptoms of various nutritional deficiencies by winter’s end.
Pearl, like earlier generations of country folk, went foraging early in spring for the tender wild greens that she felt would restore her family’s health. She avoided dependence on supermarket greens, choosing instead to harvest the great variety of spring tonic herbs that grow in the wild, available to all. She didn’t know the “correct” names for several of them, but their vital uses were second nature to her.
“Over there’s the plant I use when one of us has boils on our hind parts or those blisters you get on the mouth,” Pearl said one early spring day, pointing to a big-leaved plant growing next to a shed. “Don’t know what you call it, but it cleans the blood and takes the poison right out.” When I got closer, I could see that it was burdock (Arctium lappa), the farmer’s bane, the one that’s spread about by sticking in the horse’s mane or the cow’s tail. Burdock appears in all my herbals, from Dioscorides (first century a.d.) to Castleman (1991), as a blood purifier and a treatment for skin problems. Herbalists through the ages have also prescribed it to treat a multitude of ailments from leprosy to cancer, and although only its antiseptic properties have been confirmed by modern science, it is currently an ingredient of at least two highly controversial herbal cancer formulas.
Pearl’s list of essential tonic herbs also included lamb’s-quarters (Chenopodium album), violet greens (Viola canadensis), dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale), plantain (Plantago spp.), and the small, tender center leaves of curly dock (Rumex crispus). The precise nutritional reasoning for these choices was unknown to her, but the identity of the plants and the importance of gathering them were undeniable elements of her heritage.
Pearl has gone to her reward, but I’m sure she watches over me while I forage for early spring greens. I still search eagerly for seedlings of lamb’s-quarters emerging in my favorite gathering areas. The first seedling leaves are shaped a bit like those of tomatoes, but they are hairy and have whitish undersides. In France, I was surprised to see small bunches of lamb’s-quarters for sale in the market stalls. Here, people are more likely to dismiss this plant as a weed.
Young shoots of the native American poke (Phytolacca americana) are a traditional spring tonic that countless country people have enjoyed, but they’re not a favorite of mine: after you boil them in several waters and cook them further with fatback, there can’t be much life left in them. In addition, the roots, mature leaves, and berries of poke are toxic, and cases of poisoning have been reported even in people who apparently had selected and cooked their poke shoots adequately.
Most other spring tonic greens can be eaten without that risk, however. Among these are creasy greens (Lepidium sativum, also called upland cress) and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). Both of these plants frequently spring up in my lawn, and I often find nettles in other, slightly more moist places as well. Nettles lose their sting when cooked, but you’ll need to wear gloves when gathering them.
My personal list of spring tonic greens includes the asparagus in my garden (not wild), which I also find springing up along the pasture fence lines where it has reseeded itself. Steamed lightly, it’s a delicious spring treat that also happens to have diuretic properties.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), being a tonic herb high in vitamins and minerals, also contains gammalinolenic acid, which has been shown experimentally to reduce blood pressure and clotting; and beta-carotene, an antioxidant believed to protect against cancer. Purslane is a benign weed in my garden, and one of the few spring tonic greens that I usually cook before eating (though I occasionally eat small amounts raw). I gather bunches of leaves and stems when they’re young, tender, and full of spring’s spirit. Then I fry, drain, and crumble bacon, add vinegar and sugar, stir in the purslane, and steam it briefly for a heavenly, piquant side dish. I’m ordinarily very careful about what I eat, but diet and concern over fat go out the window when purslane is in season.
Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is a small pasture weed, an indicator of acid soil, that looks like a miniature version of garden sorrel (R. acetosa). It adds a bit of lemon flavor to a wild green salad, probably because of the oxalic acid and tannin that it contains. Because oxalic acid, which also occurs in lamb’s-quarters and spinach, is thought by some to interfere with the absorption of calcium, I don’t eat too much of this sorrel.
The small, ubiquitous chickweed (Stellaria media), with its heart-shaped leaves and star-shaped white flowers, thrives in cold weather and disappears in the summer heat. I nibble on the tender leaves and stems during my daily winter walks around the farm.
Another herb on my winter list is parsley, a nutritional powerhouse that reseeds itself in my garden. I find it under the shelter of larger plants.
The leaves of the oxeye daisy or white marguerite (Leucanthemum vulgare), which grows robustly all winter with minimum protection, are a favorite addition to our wild green salads. Its slightly sweet, slightly tangy flavor develops slowly in the mouth. Strangely, I find no mention of this common pasture plant in any of the dozens of herb books I consult regularly, though the Japanese prize the related garland chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium var. spatiosum) for its edible leaves. I feel sure that the deep green leaves of oxeye daisy, as most dark green leafy vegetables, have tonic value, especially vitamins A and C.
I always celebrate the return of spring with a cup or two of sassafras tea. In April, when the soil is loose and friable, I find a sapling or two in my woods and pull them gently from the earth. (Sassafras is a weedy tree in our area, so my uprooting of a few does not endanger its existence here.) I clean off the roots, chop them up, and boil a handful of pieces in a quart of water for about 20 minutes. The rosy-colored, sweet-flavored decoction is reminiscent of root beer—not surprisingly, as sassafras roots were once among the ingredients used to make this beverage. I don’t like sugary drinks, but many people like to sweeten sassafras tea with sugar or honey. The root chips can be boiled several times before they lose their flavor.
I drink my few cups of sassafras tea each spring in spite of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) warning that it is dangerous because it contains safrole, a potential carcinogen. I don’t overdose on sassafras any more than I do on coffee, which Castleman considers to be the most dangerous of the hundred herbs listed in his book, The Healing Herbs (Rodale Press, 1991). (Sassafras is not one of the herbs listed.) And I certainly won’t give up basil, black pepper, or nutmeg, even though they also contain small amounts of safrole.
After collecting her mess of greens, my friend Pearl liked to cook them up to make her spring “sallet”. I never knew her to serve an uncooked salad; during her upbringing, everything was cooked for health reasons. Some people like to brew up their tonic herbs in a tea (two tablespoons per cup of boiling water). However, with only a couple of exceptions (including stinging nettles), I prefer to pick them and eat them, fresh and raw, while they still contain their life energy. Fresh violet greens are wonderful when buttered and put on toast, and almost any combination of spring greens makes a good mixed salad.
If you’d rather cook your tonic greens, just follow any recipe for spinach or chard; when cooked, most greens have that same kind of “green” taste. They are also quite tasty if lightly steamed and seasoned only with a little butter. As far as I’m concerned, sauces should never be served over such greens.
I sometimes make special hors d’oeuvres that I call “weed balls”. These are chopped spring greens mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and formed into balls, coated with parmesan cheese, and baked. My guests usually enjoy them, although it was once suggested at a 4-H presentation that they’d taste better if they were called something else.
The chart below lists the nutritional value of some tonic herbs compared to common garden and supermarket vegetables such as iceberg lettuce and spinach. The values apply only to the raw, whole food, not to the same plant cooked or dried.
Most of these herbs are as close as your lawn (assuming that you haven’t tainted or eliminated them with herbicides). Yes, you must hunt for them, and it would be wise to take a field guide along until you really know the plants. I can’t imagine a more effective spring tonic than to take an invigorating walk in the fresh air to get the body moving and the blood stirring. When I stop along the way to gather a handful of this or that new spring green plant, I eat some on the spot, and take the rest home to spice up a mixed salad, maybe adding a light herbal vinaigrette. It makes me feel good, inside and out.
Portia Meares is an herbalist and author in Wolftown, Virginia.